Planning & Tips

Why crossing the Drake Passage adds to your Antarctic experience

The Drake Passage is one of the most infamous bodies of water on the planet; 500 miles of rolling sea that separates South America from the Antarctic Peninsula. Its reputation stems largely from its location. The Drake Passage lies on the confluence of three oceans: the Pacific, Atlantic, and Southern Oceans and, because of this, swells on the passage can range anywhere from dead calm to above 13 meters. Needless to say, when I arrived in Ushuaia to set sail on my Antarctic adventure, it was with both trepidation and excitement. Nonetheless, I boarded my ship, the MS Expedition with a spring in my step, looking forward to the adventurous Drake Passage crossing ahead.

Setting sail from Ushuaia into a wind-whipped Beagle Channel

It was an exciting start. We departed late in the afternoon ahead of schedule because a storm was brewing. Port authorities declared that the port would be closing in several minutes and our captain – who was perhaps a maverick looking back – decided to weigh anchor and push out ahead of the storm. This news garnered large applause aboard the ship, especially as the other two cruise ships in port had decided not to take the chance. We were immediately rewarded with one of the most stunning sunsets I’ve ever witnessed as we made our way down through the Beagle Channel. The Les Eclaireurs lighthouse stood out bright against the fading sun which made the photographers aboard the ship very happy, myself included.

Drake Lake or Drake Shake?

On average it takes 48 hours to cross the Drake Passage, but that evening we were given a briefing by the expedition leader, Jonathan, who informed us that it can sometimes take up to 72 hours depending on the weather. Jonathan’s comment that “the worst crossing I’ve had took 6 days” left us all reeling and hoping even more for a quick and calm crossing. The picture below shows the two storms we were trying to avoid as we sailed down towards Antarctica.

Gazing out over open waters as the sun sets

It became clear from talking to people on board that many of the passengers viewed the Drake crossing as a rite of passage, a price that must be paid to visit the most special continent on Earth. At dinner the first evening, people were excitedly discussing the chances of getting a ‘Drake Shake’ or a ‘Drake Lake’ – two terms used to describe a calm or rough crossing. Most people were crossing fingers and toes for the latter, but a few of the more adventurous folk onboard were boldly claiming that they wished to experience the ‘Shake’.

Crossing the Drake Passage during rough seas, better known as the Drake Shake

Seasickness on the Drake Passage

One of the biggest questions regarding the Drake Passage is seasickness. Wandering around the ship on the first night I noticed that sick bags were popping up everywhere, the staff predicting that they may come in useful overnight. The first thing to note is that weather conditions do not have to be rough for seasickness to kick in. Even in calm conditions, people who suffer from motion sickness will begin to feel ill.

Most expedition ships these days are equipped with stabilizers. These are short wing-like structures that come out each side of the ship. They work individually on a gyroscope which cancels out roughly 70-80% of the ship’s movement. However, keep in mind that there is still considerable movement sometimes and preparing properly with seasickness medication before your journey is a must. The most popular medication on our ship was the transdermal scopolamine patches. These are stuck on behind your ear and gradually release the drug over three days, but are often not recommended for people over 50 years of age. Personally, I found that the ginger tea supplied worked quite nicely.

Life onboard during the Drake crossing

Mercifully, we were blessed with a calm crossing. The decision to depart ahead of the storm paid off and we experienced small swells and picturesque sunsets. Many people assume that there will be nothing to do on the Drake Passage crossing except lie in your cabin or stare out at blank seas for two days, but this is simply not true.

Sunset over a calm Drake Passage, also known as a Drake Lake

One of the best activities on offer is the many lectures given by the expedition crew. These can range from geology and history to photography and just seriously cool stories. The word lecture can often have negative connotations, but these were anything but boring. The crew are deeply passionate about what they do, which really shone through in the talks. Even the kids had their phones away and were listening intently. One of the best stories revolved around one of the crew members almost blowing up a Norwegian research vessel by accident when stationed on South Georgia Island for a year. Many of the audience members around me were crying with laughter and one woman even spat her drink out!

One of my other favourite memories from the Drake Passage crossing was of two competitions that took place on board. The first consisted of guesswork around who could predict the exact time and date that the first iceberg would be spotted, and the second revolved around who could predict the exact time and date the first wandering albatross would be spotted. People were queuing up to write their predictions and there was a buzz on the deck as people kept vigil for that elusive albatross or iceberg. I’ll never know what the prize was because sadly I didn’t win either of them. Seeing that first iceberg appear through the mist was rewarding enough! The sheer scale of it took my breath away, as did the albatross which followed our boat for a good 45 minutes, gently skimming above the waves like some sort of daredevil performing for our delight.

Two Black-Browed Albatross gliding low on the Drake Passage

Looking back on the Drake Passage crossing

48 hours after departing Ushuaia we reached Antarctica. Looking back now, the Drake Passage was an adventure in itself. The endless open seas conjured up visions of exploration and adventure that felt completely invigorating. It also gave us passengers the chance to find our sea legs before arriving at the White Continent which made the precious days in Antarctica even more special. If I’m honest, I can’t help feeling a little smug that I sailed across the notorious passage instead of choosing to fly.

Having crossed the Drake Passage twice now, I can’t recommend it enough. Yes, it can be rough, but the feeling of reaching Antarctica by sea is immense and certainly worth achieving if you have the extra time available. There is also a good time to be had in joining your fellow explorers at the bar on the way back…   

Burnham Arlidge

Burnham Arlidge

Swoop videographer

Swoop’s videographer and an Antarctica specialist, Burnham has explored Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, as well as northern latitudes in the Arctic. Having written extensively about the White Continent, Burnham is always keen to share his stories and photos.